The Descent of the Goddess: Ritual and Difference in Sappho’s Prayer to Aphrodite

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Introduction: A Simple Prayer

The Complexity of Sappho 1

υἱὲ Ταντάλου, σὲ δ’ ἀντία προτέρων φθέγξομαι

Pindar, Olympian I

It is natural, then, that we see Sappho 1 through the filter of the many readings and interpretations which others have offered; but we sense that something has escaped them. The very fact that so many have taken up the task and provided new insight {1|2} testifies to the ultimate inability of traditional explications to capture the power of the poem, what sets it apart.

My study progresses from an overview of past response to the poem, to a discussion of speech act theory, and then to a reading of the poem informed by the concerns I outline. In Chapter I, I begin by surveying three of the more extensive and recent readings of the poem in an effort to illustrate the need for an exploration of the nature of the poem as prayer. In Chapter II, I turn to the focus of my study, the function of performative language in the poem, with a discussion of speech act theory in relation to the poem. In Chapter IIΙ, I begin a reading of the poem informed by the concerns of performative language. I continue this reading into the part of the poem known as the epiphany, where I think the poem manifests its nature, in Chapter IV. Chapter V {3|4} concludes the reading of the poem and attempts to answer the questions which have arisen in the preceding chapters.

This study concerns itself in great part with the status of the voice of the poet in the meeting of ritual and literature. As I noted above, the poem seems to contain Sappho in the words of its prayer, because it contains so much of her desire—for aid from Aphrodite and for her beloved. The best test of my understanding, I believe, is whether at the end I have answered this question: Where is Sappho in Sappho’s Prayer to Aphrodite? {4|5}


[ back ] 1. Eva-Maria Voigt, Sappho et Alcaeus: Fragmenta (Amsterdam: Polak and Van Gennep, 1971) 29–33.

[ back ] 2. For testimonia, see Voigt 30.

[ back ] 3. Denys Page, Sappho and Alcaeus: an Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry (New York: Oxford UP) 110–112 offers a discussion.

[ back ] 4. Bruno Gentili, Poetry and Its Public in Ancient Greece: from Homer to the Fifth Century, trans. A. Thomas Cole (1985; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988) 79–80. Charles Segal, “Eros and Incantation: Sappho and Oral Poetry,” Arethusa 7 (1974): 139–160. Reinhold Merkelbach, “Sappho und ihr Kreis,” Philologus 101 (1957): 1–29. A. Cameron, “Sappho’s Prayer to Aphrodite,” Harvard Theological Review 32(1939):1–17.

[ back ] 5. Gentili 80. Merkelbach passim.

[ back ] 6. Page 18. C.M. Bowra, Greek Lyric Poetry from Aleman to Simonides (London: Oxford UP, 1963) 203–204.

[ back ] 7. We need only consider the number of works published on Sappho (especially considering how little of her poetry remains) to recognize her primacy.

[ back ] 8. Page 16–17. Anne Pippin Burnett, Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983) 247–249. D.A. Campell, Greek Lyric Poetry (1967; Bristol Classical P, 1982) 264–265. Cameron 1–2.

[ back ] 9. Burnett 246 and Page 18 have interesting affective comments.

[ back ] 10. Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, Trans. John Raffan (1977; Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985) 8.

[ back ] 11. The last two thousand years of literary criticism offer support for language’s changing nature.

[ back ] 12. Page 18. Burnett 253.

[ back ] 13. Gentili 80.

[ back ] 14. Burnett 247–248. Cameron 2–3.

[ back ] 15. Burnett 246. Cameron 13–17. Page 16–17.

[ back ] 16. J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, Ed. J.O. Urmson, Marina Sbisà (1955; Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962).

[ back ] 17. The following have the fullest explications: Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, Sappho und Simonides: Untersuchung über griechische Lyriker (Berlin: Weidmannsche, 1913) 44–48. Page 4–18. Burnett 245–253. Campbell 264–266.

[ back ] 18. Cameron passim. Segal passim. Burnett 254–255.